The defacement of a downtown Ottawa mural honouring trans women of colour wasn’t a hate crime, according to Detective Gary Locke.
Locke explained what constitutes a hate crime from a policing perspective during a presentation at the Ottawa Police Service’s GLBT liaison committee meeting on Oct 19, 2015.
An Ottawa mural at the corner of Bank and Somerset streets honouring trans women of colour was defaced in September 2015. It was painted by Kalkidan Assefa as part of Queer Pride, a festival on Somerset Street organized by the Queer Mafia, the BlakCollectiv and other community organizations.
BlakCollectiv members collaborated with Assefa by writing the names of black trans women who had been murdered in the past year and the accompanying statement, “Rest in Power. #sayhername All Black Lives Matter because if your liberation is not bound up in mine, then what is the point?”
The mural was later defaced with spray-painted messages such as “racist bullshit.” The names of the murdered trans women of colour were whitewashed, with “All colors [sic] matter,” “No double standard” and “You’ve been warned,” written in red spray paint in all caps.
“Even that last comment [‘you’ve been warned’] . . . we would not characterize this under the Criminal Code as a death threat and it wouldn’t be a hate crime either,” said Locke, an Ottawa police officer who works in the hate crime unit. “It’s just a misguided comment on a hot-button topic.”
Inspector John McGetrick, police co-chair of the liaison committee, said in order for a hate crime to be established, a crime first has to be established.
“Someone who goes to court first of all has to be convicted of an offence, then it’s ruled whether it’s hate motivated,” he said. “[‘You’ve been warned’] would never constitute a crime without ‘or I’ll kill you’ or ‘I’ll eliminate black trans people.’ It’s too ambiguous . . . The person was very crafty in how they wrote it, put it that way. They knew the line and followed the line to perhaps establish their hate but not break the law, if that was their intent.”
Though the comments spray-painted on the mural on their own don’t rise to a death threat or hate crime, if the persons responsible were caught and arrested, a motivation of hate could be uncovered during an investigation, said Staff Sergeant David Zackrias.
“We need to actually catch the guy, question him, see if there are any witnesses who heard him make any more comments, hate-related comments or biased comments,” Zackrias said.
Generally, vandalism or mischief to property is investigated by police after the property owner files a complaint. In this case, Somerset councillor Catherine McKenney told Daily Xtra she reported the mural’s defacement to police. Although it appeared unclear during the liaison meeting whether or not police were investigating the issue, McGetrick later confirmed by email that the defacement was assigned to Central District Investigations and the investigation is continuing.
Luke Smith, the liaison committee’s coordinator suggested that the committee should reach out to groups like Kind, Black Lives Matter and BlakCollectiv, since they were involved in the community response to the mural’s defacement.
The liaison committee meeting also included a presentation on trans issues from Joanne Law and Zelda Marshall. Law, a trans activist who marched as a grand marshal in the 2015 Capital Pride parade, injected humour into the presentation.
“I got a divorce because I became the other woman,” Law said.
On a more serious note, she discussed her personal challenges as a trans woman in the context of the systemic inequities that still exist for trans Canadians today. From accessing health care to employment, housing, education and even travel, trans people in Canada still face barriers and discrimination, she said.
Marshall and Law also talked about the disproportionate rates of violence against trans people.
“Violence is very, very strong against transgender people,” Law said. “We get beat up. Domestic, verbal, physical and sexual abuse — it’s all there.”
“Every year on Nov 20 there’s the Trans Day of Remembrance and that’s in recognition of the fact that transgender violence either doesn’t get reported or it’s particularly violent,” Marshall said. “Victims with multiple stab wounds to the face alone is not uncommon.”